Tag Archives: Writing Exercises

Turning My Book on End

I’ve heard some good exercises to improve plot or structure, but I read a book recently that gave me a new notion—a notion that threatens to turn my book upside down.

David Ball, in his “Technical Manual for Reading Plays,” called Backwards & Forwards argues that the way to read a play for meaning on stage is backwards, not just forwards.

He says that the play is “a series of dominoes: one event triggers the next, and so on.” He invites the reader to think of arranging dominoes on end, close enough together, so that if one is knocked over it knocks over the next and then the next.

If you read a good play forwards, you won’t notice this causality. That’s because if Event A triggers Event B, you know moving forward, that Event A could have triggered a whole array of other things.  But it didn’t—it triggered Event B.

If you start reading from the end—the last event (let’s call it Event Z), then the event which caused it (Event Y), then the event which caused it (Event X), you can see that you couldn’t have Event Z without Event Y occurring, and you couldn’t have Event X without Event Y.  So while reading forwards gives you a variety of options and thus adds mystery to the story, reading backwards is a series of “of courses” as you trace the play backwards.

While Ball makes a distinction between reading a play for performing on stage and reading a play as literature, I would suggest that his method for reading works for writing a story.  One caveat is that more unique and unusual variations on chronology make it more difficult to understand Ball’s point, but I think his argument is valid at heart of any story.

So why does it turn my book upside down? To analyze my structure backwards, I have to start with the end. But I don’t have an ending yet!  Since it’s not a novel, I can’t manufacture an ending. I haven’t decided if I’ve lived the last event or if it is still in my future. Until I do live it or decide I have already lived it and know what it is, I can’t work backwards on structure!

However, I can take the last event I’ve written and read backward from there, searching for cause and effect and revising where needed.

Have you ever read or analyzed your own or someone else’s story backwards?

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Just a reminder that I have a story in the Midlife Collage contest this week.  To find my story go to Midlife Collage  OR Facebook page.  Remember: it’s “Still Photo” by Luanne Castle.  Please comment after my story and “like” it with the Facebook link if you have a Facebook account.  You can tell them which story you want to win in “closing arguments.”

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

Another Meaningful Moment

At the end of the week I travelled to Los Angeles to visit my daughter.  She had surgery on an ovary on Friday (all went well), and I stayed this weekend to take care of her.  My small stone for Friday is of a personal nature because it took place at the medical center.  But yesterday I shopped and cooked for her, and my small stone turned out to take place during the cooking.

She owns a cookbook by Giada De Laurentiis called Everyday Pasta.  I made Rotini with Salmon and Roasted Garlic for dinner.  I added steamed asparagus cut into two-inch pieces.  It didn’t last long and was the first real food my daughter could eat.

After dinner I made Baked Penne with Roasted Vegetables (see photo above), and it was also a big hit.

Here is my small stone:

Inside the onion are circles inside circles.  Halving the zucchini, I notice the small seeds which lie dormant.  The mushroom caps plump like ovaries. Even the peas are small spheres into themselves.

After the penne dish, I made devilled eggs.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Poetry, Writing prompt

Let’s Try a Month of Meaningful Moments

Have you heard of the Mindful Writing Challenge for January 2013?  I read about it on Writing into Radiance and loved the concept.  It’s about being mindful of the physical world.  To foster that appreciation, write one “small stone”–a very short prose or poetry piece–which responds to beauty one encounters that day.  Actually, it’s not just beauty–that’s my leap.  And my mistake.  Don’t look only for beauty.

Their short version is very simple:

1. Notice something properly every day during January.
2. Write it down.

The idea is to write one a day for the month of January.  It’s your choice how to share or collect your pieces–singly or in a group.

OK, I admit it:  I was still confused after I digested this idea.  What did small stones look like?  Loose pebbles?  A gravel pit?

From reading up on the notion still more, it seems that Haiku is fine, but so are a couple of descriptive lines which evoke the experience for readers.

I tried one on January 1:

Against the sky’s palm,

black sprigged ropes crisscrossed

until a boom ignited a thousand birds

scattering abroad, alone

OK, so it’s not a poem.  It’s not very good.  But it begins to capture the experience for me.  By focusing I can be “in the moment” with the birds.  If I wanted to begin a poem from this image, I’d have to figure out how to convey that empty-handed feeling after the birds are gone.  Then I risk going into the “one in the hand” cliché and that’s the end of the poem.

On January 2, I tried another:

The mountain splits the sunlight in half, and the oleander tree, its leaves glittering as though wet under bright rays, sidles up to the bare January tree which waits in shadow, dry and brittle.  The sun slips a degree, illuminating the green leaves which reflect onto the bare trunk of the tree next to it.  Now both trees shine.

I wasn’t sure what kind of tree that was, winter-naked as if it were Michigan here in Arizona.  It just looked like January.  I guess I can omit the word January.

The next day I felt frustrated and wanted to spend more time on my moment and less on figuring out what a small stone looks like.

Light tricks skewer the ground.  I’m not sure where to step along the wash, barricaded by shadow and scrub.  Stumbling on a half-buried boulder, I try to right myself, but there’s nothing to clutch and I fall.  As I haul myself up, I’m haunted by the weight of what isn’t there.

Lots of shadows and light and black in my early January stones.  I haven’t quite got the hang of it yet, but I started having fun walking the wash for this last one, so I will keep trying until I get my gravel pit.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Poetry, Writing prompt

Tell Like Heck: Writing Summary

Have you ever been told that you need to SHOW NOT TELL?  Did you take that advice and as you converted your piece to showing, it became longer and longer as you added details and actions?  Until it became that sweater you knitted with arms far too long.  Ok, I am the one who knitted that sweater.  The knitting had become a rhythm it was easier to maintain than to stop.  Like writing with lots of showing.

The long-winded sweater with the sleeves conveniently covered up

When I convert “telling” into “showing,” there are times when I have to ask myself if that information was really necessary to show. Then I start to wonder what showing really means. To me, it’s easier to consider scene versus summary.  They are both tangible components of writing memoir or fiction.

In creative nonfiction courses, there were times I was misled about scene and summary.  In these workshop courses, I received feedback from various instructors and other readers.  Although the official word was that a variation of scene and summary is important–that sometimes scene is needed and at other times summary makes more sense–when I tried to write even two sentences back to back of summary, I was told to write it in scene.

I could be exaggerating, but you get the idea.  Maybe you’ve had this experience yourself.  The intention is often good—the idea being that writers need to practice their scenes and become adept at those.

Nevertheless, sometimes the advice is just a reflex.  I admit that I’ve given this advice plenty of times myself, but I try to only do so when I genuinely think that at that point the piece screams for a scene.

What’s come of the advice I’ve gotten to always “show” or create scene is that while I think I have an idea of how to transform summary into scene, I am pretty clueless about writing summary.  I got almost no practice at it in course work because nobody would let me do it.

It’s helpful to me to recognize that most writing which we enjoy reading (a novel, for instance) is written using both scene and summary.  Summary can be just as effective as scene, depending on the style, the voice, and the goals of a particular piece.  Look at this passage from Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club:

The night’s major consequences for me were internal. The fact that my house was Not Right metastasized into the notion that I myself was somehow Not Right, or that my survival in the world depended on my constant vigilance against various forms of Not-Rightness. Whenever I stepped into the road at Leechfield’s one traffic light, I usually expected to get plowed down by a Red Ball truck flying out of nowhere (unlikely, given the lack of traffic). I became both a flincher and a fighter. I was quick to burst into tears in the middle of a sandlot baseball game and equally quick to whack someone in the head without much provocation. Neighborhood myth has it that I once cold-cocked a five-year-old playmate with an army trench shovel, then calmly went back to digging. Some of this explosiveness just came from a naturally bad temperament, of course. But some stems from that night, when my mind simply erased everything up until Dr. Boudreaux began inviting me to show him marks that I now know weren’t even there.

All engaging writing.  All summary.  But if Karr had shown this information in scene it would have dragged the book down unnecessarily.  It follows a crucial and well-developed scene.  I love how Karr uses a varying pattern of scene and summary, a rhythm which adds to the reader’s enjoyment.

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Writing Prompt:  Select a topic about a bad habit you have, such as biting your nails.  Write a scene which shows you at your worst as you are practicing your habit.  Then write a paragraph, like Karr’s, which summarizes how engaging in this behavior makes you feel and what it’s done to your life, using a couple of concrete examples as she does with hitting the other child with the shovel and getting hit by not just any truck, but a Red Ball truck.  Where do you want to go from there?  You have an ending to write.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Writing prompt